Lori Loughlin sentencing: Legal experts still expect star to serve prison time despite coronavirus pandemic

Lori Loughlin will be sentenced Friday in the college admissions scandal and while it remains to be seen if she’ll get prison time, legal experts think it’s unavoidable — even in COVID-19 times.

It’s been a wild ride for the Full House actress, 56, when it comes to her involvement in the wide-spread scam, which saw her and husband Mossimo Giannulli plead guilty to paying $500,000 to college admissions fixer William “Rick” Singer to get their YouTube star daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella Giannulli, into the University of Southern California as fake crew recruits. Initially coming off as “defiant” while fighting the charges after her 2019 arrest, Loughlin certainly had a different demeanor when changing her plea in May and telling Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, “No one has forced me to plead guilty, your honor.”

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, wearing green tie at left, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 3, 2019. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 13 parents scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Wednesday for the first time since they were charged last month in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. They were among 50 people - including coaches, powerful financiers, and entrepreneurs - charged in a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children. Many of the parents allegedly paid to have someone else take the SAT or ACT exams for their children or correct their answers, guaranteeing them high scores. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Friday is sentencing day for Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, pictured in 2019, in the college admissions scandal. (Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

‘The judge will likely follow prosecutors lead’

Ahead of sentencing, which will take place remotely with Loughlin calling in to the Boston federal court, Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Silva Megerditchian, who deems it likely that Loughlin will get the agreed-upon sentence in her plea deal: a two-month prison term, a $150,000 fine and 100 hours of community service with two years of supervised release. (The government asked for more for Giannulli, who had a bigger role: five months in prison, a $250,000 fine, 250 hours of community service and two years of supervised release.)

“When you look at the sentencing of all the parents in the case, it’s on par with those,” says Megerditchian who’s not associated with the case. “So I think the judge will likely go with it.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Actress Lori Loughlin (L) and husband Mossimo Giannulli attend the Saks Fifth Avenue's Unforgettable Evening cocktail reception benefiting Entertainment Industry Foundation's (EIF) Women's Cancer Research Fund held at the Beverly Wishire Hotel on February 20, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Donato Sardella/WireImage)
Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli, married since 1997, pictured out together at a Hollywood event. (Photo: Donato Sardella/WireImage)

Though Loughlin could potentially get more, as the judge has the final say.

“In handing down a sentence, a judge will evaluate various factors, including promoting respect for the law and deterring future criminal conduct,” San Diego criminal defense attorney Stefano Molea, who’s also not associated with the case, tells Yahoo. “Since other defendants have also been sentenced, the time they received will also be considered. In light of Loughlin’s relative conduct, two months of custody under normal circumstances would be a great outcome. I would not be surprised, however, if the judge hands down a prison sentence closer to three-to-five months in light of the other sentences of parent defendants.”

The way Loughlin has handled the case can also come into play.

“Publicly-wise she didn’t do herself any favors in the beginning,” Megerditchian says of the star, who was accused of not taking the matter seriously at the start with her smiley court appearances. Because of that, “the judge might give her and her husband something more, but I think federal prosecutors are doing a pretty balanced deal for her. So I believe the judge will likely follow prosecutors lead. I don’t think the judge will give her less time because of the public outcry.”

How Loughlin compares to other college admissions scandal defendants

Looking at some of the other parents charged in this case, of course, Loughlin’s peer, fellow actor Felicity Huffman, immediately admitted her guilt — to paying $15,000 to Singer to have her daughter’s SAT score improved — and took a plea deal, getting a 14-day prison sentence. She ended up serving 11 days total — due to time served and getting out two days early because her release day fell on a weekend.

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Felicity Huffman, right, and her husband, William H. Macy, walk out of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Sep. 13, 2019. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison and community service for her role in the college admissions scandal. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Felicity Huffman, with husband William H. Macy, admitted to paying $15,000 to have her daughter's SAT scores fixed after being charged and quickly apologized. She was sentenced to 14 days in prison last year, serving a few less due to time served and prison release procedures. (Photo: Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs, another high-profile defendant in the case, was sentenced to five months for paying Singer $100,000 to fix ACT scores for her two daughters and agreeing to pay another $200,000 to get one of them into USC as a fake beach volleyball recruit. Prosecutors called Janavs one of "the most culpable parents" in the scandal as a "repeat player,” running the scam over and over. A similar case is that of Silicon Valley mom Elizabeth Henriquez, who received a seven month sentence for paying $400,000 to have one of her daughters falsely designated as a Georgetown University tennis recruit and using a fake test proctor for college entrance examinations for her two daughters on four separate occasions.

So two months of prison for Loughlin would be on the lower side — though, again, prosecutors said she played a lesser role than her husband whose deal suggests five months of incarceration. (Both Loughlin and Giannulli faced up to 50 years each for the multiple charges against them.)

That’s not a shock for Ed Lyman, civil rights attorney with the Cochran Firm California, who tells Yahoo, “Let’s face it, the tables are already tilted for the wealthy and when they are caught in the act, they routinely receive less time than the petty street criminal. Meanwhile, white collar crimes and corruption continue to undermine our economy by destroying the idea of a free competition.”

COVID-19 could have in impact

But would the Hallmark Channel star actually step foot in prison? The coronavirus pandemic remains the wildcard.

“I think the possibility is that she’ll serve less time,” Megerditchian says. “Let’s not forget that COVID-19 has changed the dynamic in so many capacities with sentencing. We are in unprecedented times for sentencing when it comes to terms. COVID is running rampant no matter which facility it is — state prisons, federal prisons or county jails — so it’s really going to depend on the surge that [is expected] and what the [COVID] numbers actually are. But I do believe she will serve some time.”

After all, “Let’s be really straight: When you do have high profile cases like this, you want to show the public that no one is getting special treatment,” Megerditchian adds. “Remember, Loughlin’s in hot water for trying to get special treatment for her daughters. The last thing the judge is going to want to do is exacerbate that in any capacity. “

One thing that seems highly unlikely is the judge letting Loughlin serve her sentence at home. Attorneys for Janavs and Henriquez made that play, citing the pandemic, and Gorton denied them. Instead, he allowed the sentences to be postponed a few months. So while judges have been more lenient allowing white-collar convicts to serve home confinement due to the pandemic, Gorton hasn’t been one of them — thus far.

Michelle Janavs arrives at federal court, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Boston, for sentencing in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.   (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Loughlin's judge said no to Hot Pocket heiress Michelle Janavs's request to serve her five month sentence at home. She's another rich parent charged in the high-profile and wide-spread scandal. (Photo: AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“In a case like this — with so much public scrutiny and so much publicity and so many people angry about the disparity of what really rich parents can get for their kids — I honestly do not believe the judge will consider a home confinement,” Megerditchian says.

Speaking about serving prison time amid the pandemic, Lyman, who’s also not associated with the case, notes, that Loughlin faces “a relatively short sentence. In light of COVID-19, the incubation period for new prisoners is 14 days. Meaning they serve in isolation for at least 14 days. After that, she will only have a month and a half of time. I cannot imagine her sentence would be commuted given the time and expense of processing a prisoner in the first place.”

A caveat is if Loughlin has a pre-existing health condition that Janavs and Henriquez do not and her attorneys use that to keep her out of prison.

“Based on the judge’s rulings in denying a house arrest sentence for other defendants, such sentence for Loughlin is unlikely unless her lawyers can differentiate her from the others — possibly highlighting unique health risks or worsening conditions in the prisons,” Molea says.

But it seems more likely Loughlin will do time — as it was a hard-fought case for prosecutors.

“Loughlin’s lawyer [Sean M. Berkowitz of Latham & Watkins] really tried every argument to try to fight this case,” Megerditchian says. “Everything the lawyer tried did not work. So my heart tells me that the judge is going to go through with what prosecutors are arguing because this was such a hard-fought battle between defense counsel and prosecutors. There were lots of allegations about unfair play by prosecutors. So I think the [recommended sentence is] on par. It’s balanced. I think it’s a reasonable suggestion from prosecutors and I think the judge will go along with it. But, again, this case has been so fluid, I will end with: Anything is possible and nothing will surprise me.”

And it’s possible Loughlin could spend Christmas behind bars.

“She will probably be ordered to surrender herself to the Bureau of Prisons in late October or November,” Lyman says. “Loughlin could be in custody throughout the holidays.”

How we got here

This all exploded in March 2019, when federal prosecutors charged more than 50 people — wealthy parents, administrators, coaches and mastermind Singer in the brazen scheme to buy spots for their kids at big-name schools. Others were later charged as well.

While Huffman had her home raided by F.B.I. agents, appearing in court frazzled, Loughlin was in Canada shooting a project (later losing the acting gig), and was able to turn herself in at an agreed upon time, showing up at court in full glam — and a “defiant” demeanor, the court sketch artist told us at the time.

A subsequent appearance in Boston court was equally criticized as Loughlin was smiley for waiting photographers and fans, with critics saying it seemed like she was walking a red carpet.

The daughters didn’t help matters as the case played out. For example, Olivia Jade’s resurfaced quotes about going to college just to party or the influencer posting a photo of herself on social media giving the finger to the media.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 14:  (L-R) Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli celebrate the Olivia Jade X Sephora Collection Palette Collaboration Launching Online at Sephora.com on December 14, 2018 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)
Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade and Isabella Giannulli celebrate Olivia Jade's makeup collaboration with Sephora in 2018. (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)

Loughlin and Giannulli, a clothing designer, initially maintained their innocence, claiming they thought they were making legitimate charitable donations to the college, which their daughters no longer attend. That argument fell apart piece by piece as emails were made public of how the couple paid Singer to create fake rowing profiles for the girls, who didn’t row competitively. At Singer’s instruction, the couple had both daughters pose on ERG machines — an email showed Giannulli responding to the request, “Fantastic. Will get all” — and fake resumes were made listing their rowing achievements — on dates that the girls had shared on their very active social media accounts they were at other events.

Olivia Jade Giannulli posing on a rowing machine in 2017. (Image: The United States Attorneys Office, District of Massachusetts)
Olivia Jade Giannulli posing on a rowing machine in 2017. (Image: The United States Attorneys Office, District of Massachusetts)

As Loughlin and Giannulli’s attorneys attacked prosecutors, claiming a “flawed case,” prosecutors released the staged ERG photos and Jade’s rowing resume, proving they had evidence.

Olivia Jade's fake rowing resume. (Image: United States District Court District of Massachusetts Official Court Electronic Document Filing System)
Olivia Jade's fake rowing resume. (Image: United States District Court District of Massachusetts Official Court Electronic Document Filing System)

Giannulli is said to have spearheaded the efforts, showing up at Olivia Jade’s high school to confront her guidance counselor who questioned how the socialite could be admitted to USC with her qualifications. Loughlin warned Olivia Jade to be cautious in speaking with the counselor, whom she called a “weasel” who could potentially “meddle” in their scheme. Giannulli called the counselor a “nosey bastard.” Giannulli also mocked the whole thing when requesting that his financial advisor pay the remainder of the $250,000 bribe for Olivia Jade, emailing that it was the “the last college ‘donation’” he had to make — putting the word donation in quotes.

Isabella Giannulli posing on a rowing machine in 2016. (Image: The United States Attorneys Office, District of Massachusetts)
Isabella Giannulli posing on a rowing machine in 2016. (Image: The United States Attorneys Office, District of Massachusetts)

On Monday, just ahead of the sentencing, prosecutors called out the couple’s complicity in a sentencing memorandum, which said, “The crime Giannulli and Loughlin committed was serious. Over the course of two years, they engaged twice in Singer’s fraudulent scheme. They involved both their daughters in the fraud, directing them to pose in staged photographs for use in fake athletic profiles and instructing one daughter how to conceal the scheme from her high school counselor.”

Loughlin hasn’t worked amid the scandal, though Olivia Jade has returned to YouTube, posting her famous makeup tutorials and other fluff. Loughlin and Giannulli recently sold their tony Bel Air mansion, for $19 million — below the $28 million asking price. The couple also resigned their membership to their fancy country club.

The sentencing

Both sentencing hearings will take place on Friday. Giannulli will appear before Gorton first, at 11 a.m. ET. Loughlin’s hearing will take place shortly after at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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